LeanIn.org Sidesteps Issue of Unpaid Labor and Blames Messenger

It's been a rough week for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org, a nonprofit "committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals." Gawker Media's high tech gossip blog Valleywag spotted a Facebook post from a LeanIn.org editor seeking an unpaid intern for what sounded like a serious, professional editorial and design role. This led to streams of mockery on social channels and in the media.

For all we know, Sandberg had no clue about the search for an unpaid intern, but lack of knowledge is no excuse as far as the public and media are concerned. The message received is that Sandberg's a wealthy and powerful Internet exec and book author who's exploiting skilled youth.

A ProPublica article pointed out that as a nonprofit, LeanIn.org is not bound by the same U.S. Department of Labor criteria for unpaid internships that for-profit organizations must follow, and that the unpaid internship described in the LeanIn.org editor's post is "apparently legal."

"Apparently legal" is not the best defense in the court of public opinion, so in a Facebook post today, LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote:

"We recognize there is an ongoing public debate on the appropriate use of unpaid interns. So we want to share the facts with you and our community. Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org's definition of a 'volunteer.' As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid.

We support equality - and that includes fair pay - and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community."

The underlying message in Thomas' post? The LeanIn.org editor who advertised the unpaid internship had a mistaken notion of the organization's volunteer program—and the organization has people clamoring at its doors looking to volunteer at no pay. "Who can blame us?" the organization seems to be saying.

The "apparently legal" response might have been a better route to take in comparison to this one. The internship posting didn't exist in a vacuum and may be representative of the internal culture of LeanIn.org and, ultimately, that's Sandberg's responsibility. The posting may have come from an editor at LeanIn.org, but a definitive response about unpaid, professional-level work should have come from high-profile founder Sandberg.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI